Hewing the Heuristic

I know someone who regularly visits the strangest, most extreme corners of the Internet, to experience a kind of macabre bemusement.  They flit from Canadian Association for Equality to A Voice for Men to Return of Kings; they follow trails that start at Fox News and end at Stormfront or r/coontown; they learn about Gamergate by letting Vivian James lead them from TotalBiscuit deep into the places where the movement-that-wasn’t bleeds into these and other right-wing hate groups.

It’s an interesting and rather informative approach.  For people with the stomach to view and cogitate over that level of violence-fomenting hatred, there probably isn’t a better way to see the clear links between the more extreme versions and the ones that more pointedly bring themselves mainstream attention.  It’s a way to remind oneself that the quieter, front-facing versions are direct gateways into deeper wells of horror, and that the worse versions of all these things are worse as a matter of degree, not kind.

The thing is, this kind of searching also leads one into the weird, anti-scientific, decidedly baffling underbelly of many other movements as well, including movements that are utterly benign.

There are whole fora out there devoted to the idea that everything notable in European history, from the Viking conquests to Renaissance art to Greek civilization, was accomplished by people of color.  In this view, light-skinned people (not white people as a sociological category: light-skinned people, period) are a recent aberration within Europe, who have accomplished basically nothing but installing themselves as hegemons and stealing the accolades of people of color in all of world history.  These same people ignore the actual black people who ruled Egypt at various times, in order to “blackwash” more famous Egyptian rulers from the Greek-descended Ptolemaic dynasty.

What’s important to note is that the basic thesis here—that the accomplishments of people of color in European society, let alone in societies that are mostly or entirely people of color, are routinely left out of history for racist and imperialist reasons–is sound.  Entirely too few people know that Egypt had rulers who didn’t look like the ruddy-skinned, Arab-inflected image that popular culture assigns ancient Egypt, or that Alexandre Dumas was of Haitian descent, or that black people have a history in Europe going back to Roman-era military deployments in the British Isles, if not earlier.  European depictions of Ethiopian people prior to photography often make them, and especially their rulers, look lighter than they almost certainly were, out of a Eurocentric impulse to claim their ancient Christian empire as kin to Europe and an aberration within Africa.  Black explorers who served on their ships the same as any other team member, often alongside black slaves, were part of the voyages that their far more famous white contemporaries became known for, and were among the first Europeans to visit East Asia.  Correcting the obscurity of people of color in world history, and the whitewashing of medieval Europe in particular, is a noble and necessary task.

But push that well-meaning and utterly necessary discourse past the edge of reason, and people start assigning blackness en masse to the famously, documentedly light-skinned and often light-haired people whose descendants became the Slavs and Scandinavians, and start claiming recent African extraction to scattered dark-skinned populations in Australia and East Asia whose genes and cultures point to separate origins, and pointedly ignore the actual accomplishments of Africa’s many grand and sumptuous empires, all to push the line that Africa is all in defiance of all evidence.

First person:
There are places in Tumblr and other online communities where cultural appropriation is such a bogeyman that people claim that the act of learning a language that isn’t already part of one’s culture is innately and inescapably an act of cultural appropriation, and therefore the fact that a huge fraction of schools in the United States have Spanish classes is unacceptably racist.

These people are so absurd that they make it very difficult to discuss how language learning, cooking classes, and other enablers of cultural interchange can instead be engines of cultural appropriation, provided that outside learners are rewarded and the people for whom these things are native are punished.  An indigenous language can be appropriated right out of the mouths of its native speakers and into a trendy affectation for bored dilettantes or subject of scholarly inquiry if its native speakers receive enough beatings, murders, jail sentences, and residential schools.

These people go even farther and claim that virtually any act of interchange or commerce between a marginalized group and an oppressive one is appropriative, and in so doing, they attempt to prevent any communication at all between segments of society.  They would rather the United States utterly refuse to embrace its own claims of multiculturalism and make no effort to make its enormous Spanish-speaking population feel welcome, and push such an exaggerated notion of cultural purity that actual Nazis would blink at it, than admit that it is possible for people to ethically enjoy the fruits of others’ heritage or that cultures can and do grow when exposed to one another in ethical ways.

There are places online where people claim that the entire collection of oppressions encompassed by the term “kyriarchy”—misogyny, transmisogyny, ableism, racism, homophobia, classism, etc.—was invented and propagated entirely by white men of European descent.  Therefore, people other than white men of European descent (often with additional axes of privilege tacked on), being in socially disempowered positions, have no possibility of bearing any of those bigotries and are innately above reproach regardless of any appearance that their actions harm others.

The fact that axes of privilege are mostly orthogonal and therefore can result in people who are privileged in some ways (such as being able-bodied and Christian) and marginalized in others (such as being black and transfeminine) seems to have fallen out of these people’s process around the time when it would otherwise have forced them to confront, say, that some of the very same racial categories (such as Japanese people) are in positions of massive privilege in some societies (Japan) and severe marginalization in others (WWII-era USA), or that some vectors of marginalization (being disabled) are so in virtually every society in the history of the world, or that people with intersecting oppressions (transgender drug addicts) often feel equally out of place in communities that cater to only one of their experiences.

Their contention comes down to, whatever marginalized people do to deal with their marginalization is okay, even if it involves marginalizing someone else, because oppression as a concept is something only the people with the most privilege can perpetrate.  For a group under sufficient siege, such a starkly survivalist mentality makes a certain amount of sense.  Expecting such besieged people to spare a thought for the feelings of those they perceive as less oppressed can itself be oppressive, and spaces where they can discuss their experiences freely are often valuable.  Of course, this contention does a great deal to undo the improvements to discourse that have resulted from the concepts of privilege and intersectionality becoming popular in the first place; it rather deliberately exonerates the people who adhere to it it from having to think about any privilege they may actually bear; and it makes sure that the only posture these people know how to maintain is one of indignant moral superiority, regardless of where they actually stand or who they are hurting.  It is a stark perversion of the humility that recognizing privilege ought to convey, held as its highest expression, and it is usually trans women and disabled people, of color and otherwise, who suffer for this idea’s popularity.

It’s hard to know what to make of these strange communities.  The planks of soundness off of which they took their plunge into absurdity are usually not difficult to identify.  After that, though, each group has its own internal logic, often including wildly different definitions of common sociological terms, and usually considers any request from an outsider for a definition as a grave offense at best.  Speaking with them at all, one gets the impression that they aren’t interested in actually convincing anyone that they’re right, especially not people whose understanding of the issues on which they speak is already reasonably well-developed.  Rather, they spout their absurdities, hint at the logic underlying them while refusing to elaborate on it, and consider anyone who doesn’t uncritically accept their baseless propositions to be a bigot of whatever stripe they premise themselves on opposing.

I’d liken them to a series of tiny religions, built on misreadings of sociology texts rather than archaeological ones, but religions come with a boatload of social power and resources that give them a very different role in society and level of danger than these splinter sects.  Most of them don’t even have associated offline activist efforts.  Regardless, the resemblance is uncanny, as are the paths out of this foolishness.

The lesson here is, it’s necessary to watch our own ideologies and cliques at least as carefully as we watch the ones to which we are opposed.  There’s always a further extreme, and always a way for loyalty to the idea to compromise one’s relationship to reality.  A broken relationship to reality, in turn, always, always leads to harm, often to the most vulnerable among us.  We can, and must, be better than that.

Hewing the Heuristic